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Senior sports columnist Laine Higgins writes that while Penn Athletics has made clear strides in the direction of increasing access to mental health resources for athletes, there are several ways in which the administration could approve. 

Photo: Alex Fisher / The Daily Pennsylvanian

Being a student-athlete is hard. Plain and simple.

And when it comes to mental health, student-athletes are not necessarily more at risk than their peers. Research done at the University of Washington by Dr. Ashmin Rao has shown that incidence rates of anxiety and depression tend to be lower among student-athletes than non-athletes.

“Athletes actually have a ton of social support,” he said. “They have a lot of resources, trainers, coaches and people who keep their eyes on them at all times. So they’re a more monitored group.”

Despite that support, athletes are far less likely to seek out help. A 2014 study done at the University of Michigan School of Public Health with a random sampling of 7,000 students from nine universities found that only 10 percent of student-athletes with depression or anxiety took advantage of mental health resources, whereas 30 percent of non-athletes utilized care.

This is a problem. And it’s a problem that Penn can and should address.

Under the tutelage of athletic director Grace Calhoun, some improvements have already been made. During the 2014-15 academic year, all of Penn’s coaches underwent “ICARE” (Inquire. Connect. Acknowledge. Respond. Explore.) training. It’s a crash course designed by Counseling and Psychological Services for Penn faculty and students to identify the signs and symptoms of mental health issues.

“We’re trying to be more proactive with identifying signs with students who might be presenting in a certain way so we can get out in front of it and hopefully catching things before they escalate,” Calhoun said.

Sherryta Freeman was also brought on in July 2015 as senior associate athletic director to oversee student-athlete development, including mental health issues.

But that is not enough.

A good starting point would be to mimic the Athletes Connected program at the University of Michigan and give Penn student-athletes a platform for discussion. Started in 2014 as a partnership between the School of Public Health, the Depression Center and the Athletic Department with funding from a grant from the NCAA, Athletes Connected is a specialized program aimed at reducing stigma, promoting help seeking and raising awareness.

“One of our big goals is to create conversation of mental health among our student-athletes because there is a huge stigma surrounding helping student-athletes,” said Emily Brunemann, a former captain of the women’s swim team at Michigan and program coordinator of Athletes Connected. “There is a tough-it-out mentality, they’re supposed to be strong, they’re supposed to do it by themselves and gain success.”

Success in athletics, however, hinges just as much on mental wellness as it does physical fitness. The problem is that identifying when an athlete is out of shape is easy, but telling when something is amiss with an athlete’s mental health is not.

Now in its third year, Athletes Connected exposed every Wolverine student-athlete to informational videos created by former athletes who successfully learned to cope with mental health disorders, and now offers one-hour, bi-weekly focus group sessions to stimulate conversation. The concept seems simple, but that is why it is genius.

“In the first year when we did this presentation we had a big uptick in student-athletes seeking one-on-one counseling,” Brunemann said. Michigan also benefits from employing three full-time counselors within the athletic department, a resource Penn does not share.

Athletes Connected is not without its hiccups, though. “Time commitment is a big issue. All of the student-athletes we’ve been talking to want the resources that we’re currently providing, but with our wellness group, for example, it’s hard for student-athletes to find time to add another thing into their schedules.”

Indeed, constraints on student athletes’ time is one of the main reasons why care utilization rates are so low in the population. That said, Athletes Connected has tried to address this time issue by making a wealth of resources available on its website. After spending a good hour perusing the page, it made me wish that there were something similar at Penn.

Yes, the Vice Provost of University Life website features a health and wellness tab with a link to mental health resources that focuses exclusively on CAPS. But the page has nothing to say of the many student-run organizations — like Penn Benjamins and Active Minds — that were praised in a letter to the Penn community by Provost Vincent Prince on April 26, 2016, following the death of Olivia Kong.

Given that one of the suggestions made to the University by the Task Force on Student Psychological Health and Wellfare was to “make information about available resources and support for student mental health and wellness across the University easily accessible,” it seems obvious to put information about all of those resources in one place. And while Penn now has the “Thrive at Penn” module, only 7.9% of upperclassmen have actually completed it.

Further, despite all of the mental health resources currently available at Penn, there are no programs like Athletes Connected aimed exclusively at the athletic community. Maybe this kind of a program can only exist at a school like Michigan that brings in immense annual revenue from athletics. But I don’t think that is a valid excuse.

Sports doesn’t need to be the hallmark of Penn’s national reputation in order for the University to prove to its athletes that it cares about their wellbeing on more than just a physical level. I would argue that because we are not known for our national athletic prowess that we should strive to be known for something else – perhaps how mentally well our student-athletes are.

As a member of the varsity women’s swim team, I can speak to the pressures student-athletes face. At times when I have struggled with my own mental wellness, it seemed easier to push through it and not scale back my commitments for fear of appearing weak. I used swimming as an outlet and when the endorphins from a hard practice weren’t enough to make me feel better, which was often the case, I would go for runs on my own, craving another endorphin boost.

But becoming mentally healthy doesn’t work like that. You can’t run away from your problems like I tried to do. You need to talk, you need support and you need to know that that stigma of weakness is nothing more than a stigma.

For these reasons, I would love to see Penn implement a program similar to Athletes Connected on campus to address this need of mental wellness in the student-athlete community. The experience at Michigan shows that student-athletes want to talk about mental health.

We should be talking too.

Laine Higgins is a College senior from Wayzata, Minn. She is a senior sports reporter for The Daily Pennsylvanian and a member of Penn women's swimming. Her column, Let Me ExpLaine, runs weekly on Wednesdays.

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